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The 3 Top Goals in the Gym and How to Hit Them

This article is about how to achieve 3 specific goals people have in the gym. If you’re interested in the basis of goal setting strategies you can read more here.


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Here are two fake conversations I didn’t have with anyone the other day, but let’s pretend they happened so I can make a point:

Fake Conversation 1

Me: “What’s your fitness goal?”

Them: “Well I want to lose some fat, gain muscle, be healthier, more athletic, stronger…”

Me: “That’s a lot, how are you going to do all of that at once?”

Them: “I don’t know, go to the gym and hope for the best.”

In this example we have the problem of not being able to set a specific goal.  Even the most in-shape individual at your gym right now wants all of those things I listed.  Being general like this doesn’t help.  It’s important to select a singular focus for a span of time.  That doesn’t mean that focus becomes your only care, it just means that you’ll devote your training to that specific focus for a given length of time and then you can decide to switch it later.

A really common example of this is Bodybuilders.  Bodybuilders typically go through an off-season “Bulk” in which they will eat more, and lift heavier in an attempt to increase their overall muscle mass.  They will then change focus as their competition gets closer to a “cut” in which they eat less and change their training to lose body fat while retaining muscle mass.  Overall they have a singular goal but their focus changes.

Fake Conversation 2

Me: “What’s your focus?”

Them: “I’m focusing on my endurance for my upcoming marathon!”

Me: “Then why are you doing a powerlifting program?”

Them: “I don’t know, Jesus! Leave me alone!”

Once you know what your focus is it’s important to figure out what tools will help you reach your goal.  It’s very much like an inexperienced hunter not thinking there is much difference between a shotgun and a rifle, while an experienced hunter knows that which gun you select depends a lot on what you are hunting.  Similarly, we need to know what our specific goal is and choose the appropriate “tools” to achieve that goal.

When I meet with new clients I like to tell them to pick their most important goal.  Out of the plethora they listed which one are they most impatient to complete?  In this article I’m going to list out the three most common focuses people have and the general “tools” I recommend for getting the job done.

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Getting Stronger

I’ll admit I’m biased in my inclusion of this section.  Whenever I work with new clients I heavily recommend starting with at least one 9-week strength cycle.  Building a foundation of strength before pursuing other fitness goals makes achieving those other goals much easier.  There are many ways people define strength, in this section we will define getting stronger as the ability to lift a larger amount of weight.  For example:

  • Pulling a 275 lb deadlift when your previous max was 225 lbs
  • Performing a strict pull up when you couldn’t do one before

The easiest way to build strength is to perform low rep sets frequently.  For instance, if you wanted to increase your squat max from 225 lbs  you would perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps at 205 lbs (approximately 85-95% of your max).  A good strategy is to perform a minimal amount of sets but perform them as many days during the week as possible.  4 sets per day for 2 days is better than 8 sets in one day, and 2 sets per day for 4 days is even better than that.

For bodyweight exercises we use a similar strategy.  Simply sneak one rep in after a set of another exercise.  For example, I will usually perform a single pull up after I finish a set of squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc… Doing one rep certainly isn’t hard and it will build real strength.

In summary, if you’re trying to build strength:

  • Keep your reps under 5 reps
  • If possible, split your sets into multiple days (4 sets split over two days is better than 6 sets on one day)
  • Keep the weight between 85-95% of your one rep max

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Losing Fat

This is probably the most common goal people come to see a trainer about.  In general, people are wanting the trainer to be a drill sergeant that keeps them on the treadmill longer and forces them to burn calories.  I am very upfront about not being this kind of trainer and my methods do not include screaming at you just so you feel guilted into burning more calories.

When it comes to losing fat the secret isn’t in how much you exercise, it’s in how you eat.  You can’t out-train a bad diet and you can’t run off all the junk food you want to eat.  You likely already know this.  The secret to fat loss is a negative energy balance.

To ensure a negative energy balance you need to have an idea of how many calories your body burns every day already.  There are calculators available online to help you figure this out, just google “TDEE calculator” and you’ll have quite a few options.  These calculators are great but they’re not perfect.  A more precise method is to download a food diary app, like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+, and log everything you eat for 10 consecutive days.  Don’t worry about how many calories the app says you’re supposed to hit, just eat normally and log everything.  After 10 days you should be able to take an average and have an approximation of how many calories you tend to eat on a daily basis.

Using this average as your “maintenance calories” amount you can now aim to eat 200-500 calories below this number everyday, this is called your “deficit.”  Continue to log your food everyday and make sure you aren’t overeating and staying within your deficit.  If you’re new to tracking your food start with a small deficit (around 200 calories) and only increase your deficit when you don’t see any weight loss over 7-10 days.  The larger of a deficit you start with the quicker you can lose weight but you become a lot more likely to bounce back into overeating and relapse.

When it comes to training that can help you out with losing weight it’s natural to think of long distance running or cycling.  These options are fine if you enjoy running or cycling, even better if you want to do either competitively, however most of us don’t enjoy hours on a stationary bike or treadmill.  Instead, try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to burn a few extra calories.

In short, HIIT involves a maximum effort interval, typically 10-20 seconds, followed by a lengthy rest period, anywhere between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.  The point of the rest period is to feel nearly fully recovered before engaging in the next interval.  Personally, I like to add HIIT on to the end of my workouts but some people like to schedule them separately, it’s all a matter of preference.  Start with 3 intervals and over time add more to get maximum benefit.

With regards to your weightlifting it is advisable to have a slightly varied approach to sets and rep schemes.  Perform at least 3 sets of 4-6 reps during compound exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, etc… and perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory exercises such as bicep curls, lateral shoulder raises, pec fly, etc…

In summary, when it comes to losing fat:

  • Track your food intake with a food diary app.
    • Stay 200 – 500 calories below your “maintenance” calories.
  • Add HIIT sessions to your workouts to effectively burn extra calories.
    • Start with 3 intervals and slowly add more.
  • Perform 3+ sets of 4-6 reps of compound weight lifting exercises each session
  • Perform no more than 10 total sets of 6-9 reps of accessory weight lifting exercises each session

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Hypertrophy

The number one reason guys get into the gym: hypertrophy (aka Mass Building).  There’s a lot of methods we can use to trigger hypertrophy, some more validated than others.  In this section we are going to emphasize two methods I’ve had personal success with as well as success with many clients: High Volume Training and Tempo Training.  In this article we are going to discuss high volume training.

High Volume Training refers to focusing on staying within a much higher rep range than normal, 6-15 reps per set.  When using this kind of rep range you will have to lower the weight immensely from your strength training amounts.  Thus, it is advisable to start your workouts with at least 3 sets of a compound exercise in the strength training rep range, 1-5 reps.  Follow this with 3-5 sets of another exercise in the 6-9 rep range, and lastly 2-4 sets in the 9-15 rep range.  For example here’s an example of a leg day hypertrophy routine I would use:

  • Squats, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • Barbell Lunges, 3 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Leg Extensions, 2 sets of 6-9 reps
  • Hamstring curls, 2 sets of 9-15 reps
  • Calf raises, 2 sets of 9-15 reps

As with fat loss, diet plays a large role when trying to gain mass except this time we want to eat slightly above our caloric maintenance level. Many early lifters take the simple approach of just cramming down more protein. I can tell you that I, nor my clients, have had much success with simply increasing the protein alone. What has usually mattered more is carbohydrates; specifically, we start with increasing carbohydrate intake by about 50g per day and increase protein by about 20g. Additionally, I have seen good results during hypertrophy phases when adding about 1 tsp of L-Leucine to Whey Protein Shakes (read more here).

In summary, when it comes to building muscle mass:

  • Eat slightly above your maintenance calories
    • Mostly carbs, some protein.
      • Add leucine to protein shakes for a little added boost
  • Incorporate 3 sets of strength training (1-5 reps)
  • Perform the rest of your sets in the upper rep range and in increasing order.

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Want extra help reaching your goals?

If you’ve read this article and are feeling like “Yeah, that sounds great but I’d still like some help” then you may want to get in touch with a trainer/coach.  Brawn for Brains offers online coaching services at an affordable price. We work with you to develop a training plan intended to get you to your goals, provide extensive nutritional advisement, and answer any questions you may have. If you’re interested in getting in touch with our training services simply click “Personal Coaching” at the top of the article.

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Timing your workouts to supercharge your memory

exercise and memory

Anyone whose dealt with the nightmare that is “Finals week” knows the commonplace feelings of memory failing.  People try all sorts of things to improve their memory for these types of high pressure situations such as dramatic increases in caffeine intake, adderall abuse, or off-label use of desmopressin.  It’s very analogous to the person that wants to lose 20 lbs before a wedding, doesn’t really do anything to accomplish it and then in the month before they essentially starve themselves to make it work.

In both situations the person is going to experience diminished mental capacity and is very unlikely to have a good time. Coincidentally both situations have the same solution: exercise.  And I don’t mean “exercise” in the sense of doing some sort of mental exercise.  A regular exercise regimen with specific timing could actually benefit our memory capabilities.

In a recent study researchers found that exercise performed  after learning something improved memory retention and retrieval abilities.  Specifically these researcher found that aerobic exercise 4 hours after learning improved memory.  However, another study compared groups that performed High Intensity exercise at 20 minutes, 1 hour, and 2 hours after learning and found that the group that exercised immediately after acquiring some new knowledge had the highest rate of successful retrieval.

my personal experience with this

I’ve had the ability to experiment with these ideas for a while now.  Due to the 18 week structures of semesters I’ve also been somewhat forced to grant each experiment a lengthy trial time.  The four different approaches I’ve taken are: exercise immediately before class, exercise a few hours before class, exercise immediately after class, and exercise a few hours after class.

Exercising immediately after class resulted in better overall academic performance, while exercising immediately before was detrimental.

Exercising immediately after class resulted in better overall academic performance, while exercising immediately before was detrimental.

As you’d expect my results are similar to that of the research: exercising immediately after class produced the greatest level of memory consolidation, exercising a few hours after class came in second, and exercising a few hours before came in third.

What’s interesting is that exercising immediately prior to class didn’t just produce the worst results, it was pretty detrimental to my ability to learn.  This was really surprising because I would feel very energized in class and take quite detailed notes but I was not integrating the new information effectively.  Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any research showing similar results to these findings and it is quite possible that factors outside exercise timing may have been at play.  That being said I have since shuffled my schedule to allow for exercising immediately after my class and my level of memory consolidation has returned to it’s higher level.

Ensuring a stronger memory (mostly with common sense)

Timing your exercise to enhance your memory is only one tool at your disposal.  You can’t party all the time and expect to perform at your peak just because you hit some dumbbell curls after class (although one study did find that exercise does protect young brains against MDMA induced damage). Certain things need to be prioritized to truly optimize your memory.  Number one is always going to be sleep.  Sleep is going to be your number one tool in strengthening your brains capacity for everything.  Secondly, limit distractions.  We all think we can multitask and we can’t, we just don’t pay attention to anything well when we try to pay attention to too much.  When you know you’ll need to remember something then treat it as something so important that you should give it your sole focus.

applying this

If you’re a student then the methods in which you can apply these ideas are very straightforward: go to the gym after class, the sooner the better.  However this may not be entirely feasible for everyone out there.  Many of us have to squeeze in our workouts before the day begins or late after we’ve finished with work, classes, life stuff in general.  When this is the case a good approach would be to review what it is you need to integrate into your memory immediately before exercising.  And remember, best results are yielded from High Intensity exercise, walking on a treadmill for 3 minutes isn’t going to cut it!

At the end of the day you need to experiment with this.  This is just a blog article with some personal experiences tied to a few pieces of recent research, not exactly the perfect scientific standard.  But experimenting with this has given me a powerful tool to increase the consolidating and recalling abilities of my mind by simply making a conscious decision about when I exercise.  Try it out, the worst case is that you have a different result and then we can have a conversation.